One of the interesting thing about having an autistic spectrum brain is that when I am not interested in something, I am absolutely not interested, but when my interest is sparked, it gets caught in a hyper-focused state until I have either finished or I realise it is now dark/cold/everyone has gone home….Many adults on the spectrum report forgetting to eat or drink when they are hyper-focused on an activity, not because we are stressed by needing to meet a deadline, but because we are so absorbed in what we are doing that we do it until that focus is broken.
This trait is both very handy and problematic – though not usually at the same time. When studying at university hyper-focus can result in an essay being completed in 5-10 hours (though not for everyone, especially not if the person has additional literacy difficulties). Sometimes the focus has drifted slightly from the original question as a particularly interesting train of thought has been followed, which can result in an essay that does not quite answer the question! At other times, the essay question is so uninteresting that it is hard to get motivated to start researching and responding…
For children on the spectrum school can be particularly frustrating as they are not allowed to remain hyper-focused on any one thing due to the way most schools are structured with a new task being started every 30-75 minutes throughout the day. One of the ways to encourage hyper-focus and the attending search for new knowledge and learning to learn and learning to pass on knowledge and skills to others (otherwise known as assessment) is to allow students 30-45 minutes each day to work on a project of their own choosing. Students who do not have this type of hyper-focus can be guided by an inquiry learning model over the course of several weeks, whereas students that do can indulge to their hearts content, which will make school a more interested place that is viewed as somewhere learning takes place.
This viewpoint is not widely held among autistic spectrum students, as those who struggle may see school as somewhere that is full of stress, anxiety and concepts that they do not understand, and those who are very able can quickly become bored if they are not challenged. There are a number of autistic spectrum students who start school able to read and write and if they need to spend their days reciting alphabet songs and tracing letters, they quickly form an understanding of school that does not include learning. I feel particularly lucky to have gone to schools where I was constantly challenged, and grateful to my parents for sending me school age 3, after I announced I wanted to go to school as I could read already. I learnt to write in a large sand tray and was lucky enough to go to schools which provided me with work at my personal academic level (higher in maths and latin and below average in biology) until I was in high school, at which point is was all do the same thing type education – which resulted in appalling behaviour on my behalf – apologies to those who had to suffer my rolling eyeballs to the sky – I was bored!!!!
High school was saved for me by my hyper-focus on art. I would spend literally hours on a pastel drawing (Queen Elizabeth the 1st) or a Warhol style painting and about five minutes on all the rest of my homework (which would be correct by take no effort). I could lose myself in the art, the lines, the colours, the textures. It made the rest of school pass by as I doodled on paper during lessons. For other autistic spectrum students, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, special interest projects can maintain a will to turn up to school in a positive frame of mind and to participate in other things that are not interesting so that we can get to the good bit! It may be music (at which I am hopeless), drama, science, maths or a particular thing like the architecture of rugby stadiums or mummification.
Only when engaged do students learn actively, and obtaining engagement with students on the spectrum can be incredibly difficult due to our un/interested switch! Once a student is engaged, their learning gains a depth and with support and skilled guidance it can also gain a breadth. For example, a student who was hyper-focused on dogs was guided to cover all aspects of the curriculum through the topic. Maths covered sizes (measurements), classifications (sorting, ordering, graphs etc), money (how much does it cost to feed a dog, pay for the vet etc), and so on.
On the flip side – it might be best to schedule the ‘topic’ time for the last section of the day as I can recall refusing to go out to play as I wanted to just keep on with my projects…. However, the draw of going home is far greater than the call of the playground!